Sunday, November 28, 2010

Korea: The Fate of a Cold War Vestige

[We are currently witnessing increasingly nasty displays of deadly force on both sides of the Korean divide. The North appears to be getting ready to call America's bluff. What will the South do, faced with growing belligerence from the North and progressive paralysis in the US? Our thoughts should be with the Korean people—both North and South. What follows is the introduction to the Korean edition of Reinventing Collapse which I wrote earlier this year.]

[Update: Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University, Seoul, South Korea, has a singularly lucid view of the recent cross-border shelling: North Korea is peculiar (we knew that) and this is how it asks for money. South Korea must not overreact and provoke a hugely destructive military conflict when all it has to do is part with a little bit of money.]

Over the course of the Cold War, the two superpowers—USA and USSR—built up an inventory of unresolved conflicts, which they, by tacit agreement, placed in deep freeze for the duration of their combined existence. In some cases, ethnically homogeneous entities were split up across artificial political boundaries, while in other cases disparate ethnic groups were held together by force within a single artificial political unit. Once the USSR collapsed, the multi-ethnic entities—Georgia, Moldova and Czechoslovakia—did their best to break apart, while the partitioned ones did their best to try to reunify. While some of these frozen conflicts—most notably Germany—needed both superpowers to remain refrigerated, one particular example—Korea—remained well-preserved even after the the collapse of the USSR, with the North providing its own, self-sufficient source of refrigeration.

For now, the US military continues to maintain over a thousand foreign military bases around the world, including South Korea. Most of these serve no real purpose. Even while it was still opposing the Soviets, the US military morphed into a sort of grand extortion scheme: the American intelligence community exaggerated global threats, and the military spent copious public funds pretending to counter them. To this day the military remains Washington's single most powerful political lobby (Israel is a distant second) and thanks to its efforts America spends more on defense than most of the other nations of the world combined. But what it gets for all this money is in fact quite meager. There are just two things that the US military can do well: it can shoot civilians and blow things up with wild abandon (as it has been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan); it can also hold a proud and purposeful pose while doing nothing (as in South Korea and many other countries around the world). There is not a single country that is sufficiently defenseless, defunct and impoverished—not Iraq, not Afghanistan, not even Somalia—so that the mighty US military can successfully conquer and control it. (Perhaps Haiti—but only just after a major earthquake.)

It is something of a law of history that sooner or later all empires must collapse. It is also something of a law of group psychology that people always underestimate the probability of large and sudden changes, and so are they are always taken by surprise when they occur. Nobody was more surprised by the collapse of the USSR than the professional sovietologists. As Reinventing Collapse explains in detail, the collapse of the United States of America is already a given. Only the timing of its collapse remains uncertain, because it can be triggered by any number of relatively minor, unexpected events. Inevitably, the US will be forced to repatriate its troops and to liquidate its overseas military bases, in order to concentrate its efforts on attempting to rein in the forces of chaos on its own territory. We can only hope that the unwinding and scrapping of the US military empire will proceed in a controlled manner. There are few countries in the world that have more of a reason to think forward to that day and to plan accordingly than South Korea, and so it is quite appropriate that Korean is the second language, after English, in which Reinventing Collapse has been published.

The collapse of the American empire is certain to be accompanied by a long cascade of global crises. International trade and finance are sure to be disrupted. Countries around the world will be subjected to an experience similar to what countries in the former Soviet sphere went through after the USSR collapsed. They are sure to experience economic dislocation, numerous bankruptcies, mass unemployment and impoverishment, political crises, and many lives will be cut short as a result. Some countries did better than others in adjusting to the new circumstances, and can offer useful lessons. For instance, when Cuba was cut off from the Soviet oil supply, it pioneered the use of organic urban agriculture, and it did succeed in feeding its population without the use of fossil fuel inputs. North Korea is generally not seen as a success story, but it too may be able to offer a few useful lessons on surviving superpower collapses. Moreover, it does have a population accustomed to extreme hardship, and that, in the new circumstances, may itself turn out to be an asset.

Over the course of my life I have known many Koreans, both in the US and in Russia. (There is one particular North Korean student of nuclear engineering I remember: a very serious and sober young man living quietly in a fraternity of hard-drinking Russian engineering students. "Our little Chernobyl" we called him.) From what I have been able to piece together based on what I've been able to observe, Koreans are quite patriotic, very resourceful, detest foreign meddling in their affairs, and are exactly like everyone else in wanting a peaceful and prosperous existence for themselves. It may very well be that Korea's 21st century will make up for the horrors of the 20th, while most of the former USA devolves into a collection of lawless, ungovernable, sparsely populated territories that, gradually or abruptly, fade from the world scene. But such a positive result for Korea is by no means automatic. Fierce beasts are at their most dangerous right after they have been fatally wounded, and it is hard to predict what sort of damage a fatally wounded America might cause in its agony. Korea will have to reinvent America's collapse to its own advantage. Being a foreigner, and not wishing to meddle in Korean affairs, all I can say is, think ahead, plan ahead, and may you have the best luck possible!

23 comments:

David Scott said...

Situation extemely confusing in Korea. On one hand you realize that it is a cold war relic that needs to be allowed to transform into whatever Korean people desire but then what if North Korea was the winner?
Would the people of south Korea be so used to the freedoms that, few as they may be still, are more than NK that they would drag NK kicking and screaming into some kind of benevolent goverment?

In the end only the Korean people can decide the kind of goverment they want.

kulturcritic said...

And it seems as though the fierce beast, already fatally wounded both at home and in other 'theatres,' is rearing its ugly head and readying to make menace!!

Patz said...

the US military morphed into a sort of grand extortion scheme: the American intelligence community exaggerated global threats, and the military spent copious public funds pretending to counter them.

Beautiful! Like the old Soviet joke: "we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us."

DeVaul said...

Just as an aside, historically, most of America's major wars started after the sinking of a U.S. ship or after a foreign attack on our ships ("Remember the Maine!", "The Lousitania", "Pearl Harbor", "Gulf of Tonkin", "USS Liberty!" -- oh, scratch that one).

Sending an aircraft carrier, an offensive air weapon, into the Yellow Sea right after China and Russia decide to quit using the dollar and after we provoked them by printing another trillion is absolute madness.

This benefits the U.S. military-industrial complex only, and they live in a bubble of their own making. It does not include us, and they could not care less what happens to the rest of us.

They are complete psychopaths.

I. M. Nobody said...

Would the people of south Korea be so used to the freedoms that, few as they may be still, are more than NK that they would drag NK kicking and screaming into some kind of benevolent goverment?

The remaining days of benevolent government on this planet seem destined to be short. Per Plato, "we know of no country where the ruling class does not rule for it's own benefit." When rapid growth became feasible, benevolence was an essential aspect of eliciting productive cooperation from the population. Where benevolence is not affordable, fear will do the job, but with much lower productivity.

With the onset of peak practically everything, not much of anything is going to be affordable and growth will soon be a dead concept. Governments all over the world are already giving their people small demonstrations of their power to instill fear. The sad truth is that North Korea probably closely resembles the future of governance on most of this planet.

Bukko Canukko said...

Kollapsnik, you've written many scary things, but this is the most frightening yet. People who read your forecasts don't need laxatives because you scare the crap out of them. I'm sometimes constipated, so I look forward to reading the intros to future country-specific editions. Canada and the "United" Kingdom -- I'm thinking of you! The Orlovian spin on their flight path along the downward spiral will be "horrorshow" in the Clockwork Orange sense.

The collapse of the American empire is certain to be accompanied by a long cascade of global crises... Countries around the world will be subjected to an experience similar to what countries in the former Soviet sphere went through after the USSR collapsed. They are sure to experience economic dislocation, numerous bankruptcies, mass unemployment and impoverishment, political crises, and many lives will be cut short as a result.

In the expat thread, commenters talked about anti-Americanism they sense abroad. Can you feel the love that will be coming the USA's way if it plays out as Dmitri says?

Steve said...

During my year of teaching English in S. Korea, I had the occasion to visit the DMZ. I was amazed how close it is to Seoul the capital.
I hope they all come to their senses and stop this gamesmanship. I have a feeling that N. Korea is becoming quite desperate with the winter coming and not enough food and fuel to go around. Desperate people do desperate things...

God Is Red said...

I think what is most important here is, as usual, what we are NOT being told by the corporate media.

Why exactly are the North Koreans on a seeming suicide mission? You can rest assured, aside from the sanctions that are acknowledged, what is really going on in the mind's of the war profiteers at the Pentagon?

Do they wish to provoke North Korea in some effort to demonize the Chinese and maybe even triggering a war with them to get out of paying the trillions of dollars of our debt they have buying up until recently? To stop them from undermining the dollar and locking us out of the international oil trade?

I have a hunch that in addition to these fist shaking military maneuvers aimed against North Korea, in addition to the crippling sanctions, there are other dirty deeds and actions perpetrated against the North to disrupt and destabilize that country. We have been the ones provoking the North, and who can nly guess at what the ulterior motives may be, other than to punish yet another country from an "axis of evil" (translated=any country that refuses to e dominated by multi national corporations and/or refuse to do what "Uncle Sam" tells them to do

Allstar said...

If Northe Korea really want to up the anti and bate the South Koreans and the US then of course they will do it leading into a Korean Winter.
There is something very 'fishy' about the US's CIA not knowing about the North Korean Govt Neuclear Program and having to find out by the North's invitation to Siegfried Hecker, a Stanford University professor and a former director of the Los Alamos National Neuclear Laboratory, to inspect the North Koreans New Neuclear Plants and who then told the 'Western World' via the 'Times' in an interview - "that he was shown the facility earlier Nov 2010, and that the North Koreans said 2,000 nuclear centrifuges have already been installed and are running at the plant."
No one really beleives the aspect about the CIA's lack of knowlege do they?
The CIA would rarely acnowlege their level of knowlege
because it would jepardise the effectivness of their operatives and operations.
Further using an arms length Civil expert and a British News Paper is a convienient foil especially when he comes back with reporting news of 'shock and ou - arree' value. If we are being drip fed strategic propaganda to unite us of one mind in preporation for War then I expect that we will be served weekly updates of the increasing insanity of Kim-Yong Il and the manic nature of his son and successor and continually
briefed on North South scirmishes in an alarmist genre of journalistic coverage that will atempt to unite us useing emotive triggers.
If its just Kim-Yong Il junior flexing his muscle as he takes the reigns of his country then this will all tone down over the transition period.
I hope we are not being masticated for War but somehow the shape of the US economy and the US's 200 year history of Property crashes and Market Crashes and Economic downturns that invariably preceede major Militry Operations seems to imply that they are ripe for industrial stimulus that salvages employment and harnesses every facet of their Industrial Militry Complex and pulls them out of Recession/Depression in the never ending Boom Bust War Peace US Buisness cycle.

Patz said...

N. Korea being an extreme example of dictatorship and government with an insane tilt makes a perfect foil for the U.S. at this time.

S. Korea seems to be dutifully playing "poke the tiger with a sharp stick." Why?

Lots of possible answers; my guess is that the economic news is bad and this is distraction. How much distraction are they planning, that's what I wonder?

Is a bit of skirmishing enough or will it require some serious conflagration? Whatever, it's worrying. As a kid I once played in our garage by lighting newspaper and stuffing it under our car. Things like that can get out of hand.

DeVaul said...

There is an article over at the Silver Bear Cafe that argues for leaving America because it will only get worse, and it makes many valid points. Unfortunately, it uses ancient Rome as an example.

The conflict in Korea is a prime example of the current problem: there is no where to go that is secure and safe. The collapse of America will affect every country (even Cuba, which will be free of blockade) in the world, and tropical islands can easily turn into death traps.

Every province in the world will be fighting to regain something that was lost during the Cold War or in the aftermath of WW II, and unlike Americans, most people in the world do not have short memories. They remember.

There is even the chance that the US will have artificial borders imposed upon it by stronger nations in the future, and these arbitrary borders will fester for many, many years and cause much pain and suffering.

The outlook is grim, but I think that living near or with relatives will help a great deal. That is the direction people should move in now before it is too late.

However, convincing them to do so may prove impossible in a country that has not been divided for nearly 150 years. We have no memory.

Lance Michael Foster said...

"A man without history is a tree without roots." - Confucius

"They forget nothing and they have learned nothing." -Old French saying

kulturcritic said...

Sorry to disagree... I would only say that a man without (a) history is a free man!

Lance Michael Foster said...

It's certainly your right to disagree with Confucius. Now you can say, "Hey, I disagree with Confucius."

Lance Michael Foster said...

A tree without roots tends to get blown over in a storm....and then carried away as firewood.

I. M. Nobody said...

kulturcritic,

As I read it, your disagreement was actually an agreement. An uprooted tree is free. It's the rooted ones that are bound to their place and their past.

It's good to remember what the old minstrels had to say about being free.

Freedom's just another name for nothing left to lose.

hawlkeye said...

Sometime about a year ago, I was so impressed by a quote I read here from a Russian zen master, that I copied it onto my marker board, a profound reminder for puzzled patriots:

"Freedom requires slavery for it to have meaning. Those who are truly free have no use for the word, and do not know its meaning."

A koan for our times, because the sound of one hand clapping is just a silent salute...

leegrove said...

Let's not forget that this current event was initiated by South Korea; and I would suspect, actually, the U.S.
Having lived in South Korea for four years, I am very troubled by what could be happening here; that is to say, we now have a sadistic alien culture (Wall Street) that has taken over a de facto third world country (the U.S.) attempting to profiteer by pitting two parts of the same family against one another--and yes, there are still families separated by the armistice. I can't help but think that the fantastically capable and family-oriented people of South Korea have been duped into perceiving enemy as friend and friend as enemy, at this point in the corporate takeover of America.
What a tragedy this has the potential to be.
If this all ends in the murder of millions of innocent, hard-working, loving Koreans, America will fall quickly, as asia is not the middle east, and the People, en masse, will UNDERSTAND what has been perptrated. And I, as an x-American who will be seeking political asylum in a non-facist country, will do everything in my power to help the process along.

wagelaborer said...

The US ruling class seems to prefer war as its way out of financial straits.
Oliver Stone interviewed the former president of Argentina, and he quoted Bush. Apparently someone sat Bush down and explained in very simple language what he must do.
" In front of a film crew, Kirchner confided to Stone that the former U.S. president once directly told him, "The best way to revitalize the economy is war."

"We had a discussion in Monterrey. I said that a solution for the problems right now, I told Bush, is a Marshall Plan," he claimed to have suggested. "And he got angry. He said the Marshall Plan is a crazy idea of the Democrats. He said the best way to revitalize the economy is war, and that the United States has grown stronger with war."

Asked to clarify, Kirchner added: "He said that. Those were his exact words."

zhu said...

Demonizing China wouldn't surprise me. You can see it in various blogs already. But I would expect the Pentagon to promote independence movements in Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, etc., rather than out-right war with the PRC. The People's Liberation Army is not especially military (their main activities are running factories and civil defense) but they do have a lot of people and some nukes.

zhu said...

Note that the CIA is one of at least 17 "intelligence" agencies, all of them full of semi-competent chauvinists, all of them rivals, any of them capable of making trouble anywhere in the world.

God Is Red said...

Again, it is what we are NOT being told that usually proves to be the most important.

To take another example, remember the downing of Korean airlines flight KAL 007 in 1983?

Then president Reagan used that occasion to promote his 'evil empire' propaganda.

After reading Michael Parenti's 'Inventing Reality' and other articles from independent media, there was so much we were NOT told about that tragedy.

First, the odds of a modern day jetliner just happening to stray over the most sensitive military parts of the former USSR are considered astronomical, if not impossible.

Second, that Korean pilots are frquently recruited by the CIA in their efforts to keep endless wars against endless and usually faceless enemies going.

Third, that the Soviet pilots flew right beside the cockpit and dipped their wings signaling the jet to land? They supposedly even fired tracer shells before finally launching a heat seeking missile at what they thought was a spy plane

Finally, there were US spy satellites orbiting over the area that could listen in on and gather info, frequencies of the Soviets when they went into war mode

In sum, it was likely a plot yet most americans think those barbaric Russians willingly and knowingly shot down a civilian airliner. Many of these same people didn't give a shit when the US shot down an Iranian jet full of civilians

Rest assured, there are many things we are not being told about the situation in Korea as well

zhu said...

Perhaps the most logical way to bring an end to North Korea would be to offer a safe comfortable retirement to the elite. They must fear what would happen to them if they lost control.